MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Mitt Romney came under the most intense fire he's faced in a televised debate Monday night, hammered from the outset by his four remaining rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. And, according to one of his top advisers, Romney won.
"Governor Romney demonstrated tonight why he's leading in South Carolina [and] why he's leading nationally," Eric Fehrnstrom said in the "spin room" where reporters gathered to get the post-debate perspective of candidates and their surrogates. "You heard him give strong answers about his business record, about Afghanistan and foreign policy, about his entitlement plan. And I think what these debates have turned into is a 'get Mitt' show, and anytime something like that happens and Mitt Romney comes out of it unscathed, then I think you can fairly conclude that he's the winner."
Whether Romney was "unscathed" in the debate here was, of course, disputed by the other campaigns. Rick Santorum's campaign manager, Mike Biundo said his candidate "did really well.… He had a very pointed exchange with Governor Romney, showed that he certainly has debate skills and understands and has a command of the issues, and I think you're going to need that in the fall."
Santorum came out hard against Romney, saying that a so-called "super PAC" supporting the former Massachusetts governor "has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote from prison." Then Santorum asked Romney directly whether "felons who have served their time who have exhausted their parole and probation" should be able to vote. Romney attempted to explain that, by law, he cannot communicate with the independent group, Restore Our Values, which produced the ad, one which Santorum has called dishonest. But Santorum interrupted Romney's explanation: "Answer the question first."
When Romney again tried to defer, Santorum demanded an answer and said: "This is Martin Luther King day. This is a huge deal in the African American community because we have disproportionately high rates of incarceration in the African-American community." This seemed an unusual line of argument in a Republican debate, especially in a state as conservative as South Carolina, but Santorum was steering the frontrunner into a trap. When Romney then said he believes violent criminals should have their voting rights permanently revoked, Santorum pointed out that when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, that state's law permitted felons to vote while still on probation or parole -- more liberal than the federal law for which Santorum voted. "If in fact you felt so passionately about this," the former Pennsylvania senator challenged Romney, "then why didn't you try to change that when you were governor of Massachusetts?"
It was inarguably one of Santorum's best performances to date, but it was generally a good night for all the "not Romney" conservative challengers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- currently dead last in South Carolina polls among the five candidates still actively campaigning -- and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, widely regarded as the candidate with the best chance to beat Romney in Saturday's primary here. But Gingrich also suffered some blowback for his own attacks on Romney's business record at Bain Capital, which he defended by saying, "We need to satisfy the country that whoever we nominate has a record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way." But then it was Romney's turn to criticize "super PAC" ads, calling an attack ad by a pro-Gingrich group "the biggest hoax since Bigfoot."
Of course, there are those who say that Bigfoot -- the legendary half-man, half-ape of the Pacific Northwest -- is quite real. And if Romney should get the Republican nomination, the Obama campaign will surely target his record at the Bain investment firm in much the same way Gingrich and his PAC have done. So, "hoax" or not, Gingrich has undoubtedly exposed one of the frontrunner's biggest weaknesses. The question, however, is whether any of Romney's rivals have hit him hard enough -- or soon enough.
That question was raised when the Santorum campaign unveiled a new TV ad yesterday that compares Romney's record to the Democratic incumbent's record and asks, "Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama?" Mark Halperin of Time magazine remarked, "Amazing to think about what would have happened if this ad had been run in Iowa for all of December with real money behind it."
Whether such attacks -- either in ads or in speeches or in debates -- can slow Romney's momentum now is the big question remaining to be answered. And the answer to that one will have to wait until the votes are counted here Saturday.